U.S. and Cuba to Cooperate on Sister Sanctuaries

Less than a hundred miles south of the reefs and mangrove forests of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary lay the marine ecosystems of Cuba. Though managed by different nations, these ecosystems are bound together by ocean currents and animal migrations.

The Cuban shoreline
The Cuban shoreline. Photo: Gonzalo Cid/NOAA

One of the most exciting results of the newly-opened relationship between the United States and Cuba is that it affords us an unprecedented opportunity to work with marine protected areas in Cuba. By working together, we can develop the best ways to protect some of the world's most amazing marine environments.

With a newly signed Memorandum of Understanding among NOAA, the National Park Service, and Cuba's National Center for Protected Areas, we intend to share information ranging from scientific research to education and outreach materials – all of which will help us better manage some of the most ecologically-significant ocean places in both countries.

fish hiding in a coral reef
Banco de San Antonio is home to more than 100 species of fish, 15 species of corals, and more than 40 species of sponges. Photo: Cuban National Center for Protected Areas (CNAP)

This new MOU establishes sister-sanctuary relationships between Guanahacabibes and Banco de San Antonio in Cuba, and Florida Keys and Flower Garden Banks national marine sanctuaries in the United States – recognizing that these places are all inextricably linked through the flow of the ocean.

close up view of a fish in guanahacabibes
Guanahacabibes is home to more than 200 species of fish, 40 species of corals, and 1,000 species of mollusks, 10 of which are exclusive to the Guanahacabibes peninsula. Photo: Cuban National Center for Protected Areas (CNAP)

The new MOU will make it easier for coral reef managers and scientists in the U.S. and Cuba to learn from one another's experience, which will benefit coral reef resources in both countries, said Billy Causey, regional director of ONMS's Southeast Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean region.

"For decades we have known that the ocean currents throughout the wider Caribbean serve as a conveyor belt, moving important marine life between our countries," he said.

The sister-sanctuary designation – which also incorporates a relationship with Dry Tortugas and Biscayne national parks – will help us ensure that when we work to protect the Florida Keys, we are also considering the role of Cuban marine environments. And because Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary has similar biological and physical features to the coral reefs at Banco de San Antonio, the sister-sanctuary designation will give researchers the key to evaluating ecosystem functions and changes at the two sites.

fish swimming around the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary coral reef
The coral reefs of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary are similar biologically and physically to those of Banco de San Antonio. (Photo: G.P. Schmahl/NOAA)

"Our National Marine Sanctuaries and Cuba's marine protected areas are like the bookends for the ecological encyclopedia of the Gulf of Mexico, said William Kiene, a policy analyst for national marine sanctuaries' Southeast Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean region.

"Working together to preserve these spectacular concentrations of marine life in key areas of the Gulf will not only help us to strengthen the connections between them, but to also help us to strengthen the connections between our societies, which both rely on the ocean we share."